I’m not looking for a career in accountancy, engineering or anything that needs Maths. Why do I need to think about my numeracy skills?

It’s National Numeracy Day 2020 on the 13 May and Birkbeck Futures takes a look at why numeracy skills are important no matter what career you choose.

Picture of dominoes

Many jobs that we typically don’t think involve numbers usually require some level of numeracy.

Being numerate means that you can confidently and effectively use mathematics to meet the everyday demands of life.

You may not be asked to solve complex equations, but you could be required to complete tasks that involve numeracy skills. For example, if you’re in Human Resources, you may be asked to provide a report on gender diversity figures. Similarly, if you’re in the Arts, you may need to put together a budget for an exhibition. Both of these require some level of numeracy.

The OECD reports that there is a direct relationship between wage distribution and numeracy skills. The better your numeracy skills, the greater your earning potential.

Why?

Because all those things you learnt in Maths help build the skills employers are looking for.

Employers aren’t just looking for technical skills and subject knowledge when they recruit someone. They need you to have employability skills – transferable skills that enable you to do the job successfully. For example:

Digital Skills

Digital skills are required in at least 82% of online advertised jobs across the UK.* We live in the digital age and as a result, we deal with more numerical data that we ever have before. You need good numeracy skills to be able to work with computers, otherwise you’re unable enter the right data or identify if the answer is in the right area.

Problem Solving

Problem solving skills are vital to any graduate level job. Maths is all about solving problems; take working out an equation for example. You need to pick out the important parts of the problem and then work out the knowledge required to solve it. This skill is transferable to solving any problem, mathematical or not.

Communication

When studying Maths, or working with numbers, you will have developed your ability to assimilate and communicate information in a clear and concise way. Everything we do in the workplace is a result of and requires communication of some kind.

Employers are increasingly using numeracy tests as part of recruitment processes.

As numeracy is such an important skill for employers, many use numerical reasoning tests as part of their recruitment processes. These types of assessments measure your ability to interpret, analyse and draw logical conclusions based on numerical data presented in graphs and tables.

Students can find out more about these tests and have a practice on the online Careers Portal (accessed through your My Birkbeck Profile).

But what if I’m not good with numbers?

We all have areas of ability that we feel more confident in than others. You might not think that you’re good with numbers because of experiences with Maths in school, for example. But chances are you’re much more competent than you think.

Our level of confidence often impacts our ability to take on new challenges or face up to things we may usually avoid doing. To reiterate the problem-solving example above, when we don’t know something, we can find out how to do it. Embrace your numeric abilities and enhance your skills to help boost your confidence in this area.

Birkbeck is supporting National Numeracy Day for the first time this year. Join the conversation on Twitter or see if you can build your everyday Maths confidence by taking the challenge.

Get in contact with Birkbeck Futures at employability@bbk.ac.uk or follow us on our social channels:

*Source: “No longer optional: Employer demands for digital skills” report – June 2019

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Tips for enhancing your career possibilities during COVID-19

Birkbeck Futures explore different ways to help job searching during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As companies continue to navigate the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, you may be among the growing number of workers who have lost their jobs as a result. This is a challenging situation at the best of times, let alone during a global pandemic, but your job search and career opportunities can continue. Embracing some alternative approaches will help to enhance your future possibilities, while providing an opportunity to explore different options.

These tips will support you with your job search and help you navigate your career journey during this time.

Consider your current priority

  • If your priority is to gain short term income, explore the industries that are continuing to hire at this time. Rather than put pressure on yourself to find the perfect role now, if you need a short-term solution consider checking what is available and possible for you.
  • Examples of industries that are recruiting include delivery services, supermarkets, online learning platforms (tutoring children out of school), remote working / communication platforms, among others. While it may be a necessity, view this as an opportunity as well as a temporary option for now. Every new experience brings new skills and new people into our life that may result in unexpected future opportunities.
  • Birkbeck is continuing to provide weekly updates to students and you can also gain support through our student services. Further information on support available during this time.

Embrace online networking

  • You may already be active on LinkedIn and this is one of many platforms that brings a wealth of opportunities to connect with others in your field. Joining groups, contributing to discussions and reaching out to people in your profession are great ways of building your network.
  • Not only will this develop new and existing connections, it will help to boost your visibility to others in your industry who may have job opportunities in the future. While many companies are pausing recruitment, they will be hiring again in the future and making connections now will enhance your opportunities when they do.
  • The vast majority of jobs are not advertised online and rely on referrals and connections. This has been the case for many years, so it has never been more beneficial to start networking – the results may not be immediate in terms of landing a job straight away, but it will continue to help at every stage of your career.
  • You can find out more about using LinkedIn with these resources on the Online Careers Portal.

Become familiar with online communication tools

  • Once you start to connect with groups and individuals through LinkedIn or other online platforms, take advantage of the opportunity to arrange a call with connections (also now often referred to as a ‘virtual coffee’….). This is a great chance to ask them questions about their career, any tips they may have for you and even just to build rapport with them. With most people working from home, you’re much more likely to get more ‘yes’ answers to your requests than previously.
  • The most popular tool for online calls is Skype. If you don’t have an account, consider setting up a free account or suggest a phone call instead.
  • If you’re not used to doing video calls, practice with friends or family to start getting used to it and to build your confidence ahead of calls with connections. If you’re in an interview process, you will very likely be invited to a video interview, so this is also worth investing some time to make these calls as successful as possible.
  • For tips on video interviews read this article.

Develop your skills

  • There are many articles now about ways to upskill during lockdown and things that you could do, but exploring what would be beneficial for you is certainly a worthwhile exercise. Reflect on the type of job you want and consider the skills that often come up in the job descriptions you may have read. Are there any areas you’d like to be more competent in? This could be technical expertise or soft skills.
  • As a Birkbeck student, you have access to LinkedIn Learning which has a range of online courses across various topics that you can complete. You can also add your completed courses to your LinkedIn profile, enabling others to see your updated skills.
  • Other online learning platforms are offering free trials or complimentary content, so depending on the areas you’re keen to develop, search for relevant courses that you can access.
  • Birkbeck’s Online Careers Portal also has a range of resources to develop your skills, as well as tools to enhance your CV and work on your interview technique. The next tip has more information on this.

Use Birkbeck Futures’ online resources

Birkbeck Futures, which includes your Careers, Enterprise and Talent services, is here to support you remotely in various ways. As a Birkbeck student, you have access to various online resources to support you in your job search as well as to develop your career further:

  • Access to your Online Careers Portal via your My BBK Profile.
    You can access the Online Careers Portal via your My BBK Profile, clicking the ‘Careers and Employability’ section on the homepage. Alternatively you can log in directly – enter your Birkbeck username and password to access the following:
  1. Live chat service with a Careers Adviser during the careers drop-in hours: Monday – Thursday 4pm – 6pm, Fridays 3pm – 5pm
  2. Instant CV feedback via the CV360 tool
  3. Book a 1:1 with a Careers Consultant for more comprehensive career support
  4. Receive the weekly careers newsletter with news, updates and relevant resources
  5. Access articles, videos and activities to develop your skills
  • Access to Birkbeck Talent, your in-house recruitment service.
    We are posting live roles on the Talent portal, also accessible via your My BBK Profile. There are some paid remote-working internships, as well as other live roles. You can search for roles, upload your CV and apply for roles online, as well as contacting the talent team for support.
  • Follow us on our social channels for latest updates on Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram, where we post new roles, details of all remote workshops and events as well as our employer insight podcast series.

Contact us: employability@bbk.ac.uk | talent@bbk.ac.uk

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Skills are a risky investment

This post was contributed by Dr Frederick Guy of Birkbeck’s Department of Management.

A shortage of skills is a source of perpetual anxiety within Britain’s political class. Here’s Tory backbencher Dominic Raab, a few months back in the Telegraph:

The next great problem is our chronic skills gap, which saw Britain plummet down the international rankings in maths, literacy and science. Labour’s arbitrary goal of getting 50 per cent of youngsters into university led to the proliferation of what one of its ministers called “Mickey Mouse” courses, which have benefited neither the students nor the economy. A 2005 Ofsted report found that almost half of those in their twenties said their education had not prepared them for their first job. Far from blaming Europe for this, Michael Gove is rightly learning from it – promoting innovative Swedish-style free schools and a more German emphasis on vocational training.

If we put aside the sniping at Labour and the currying of Gove’s favour, most of this could actually have been written by any of hundreds of politicians from any party at any time in the past thirty years: the schools aren’t delivering the goods, and we don’t do near as good a job at vocational training as the Germans. The skills gap feeds an endemic collective anxiety, the root of the county’s endless obsessive-compulsive re-engineering of its education system – because, surely, finding the right curriculum, the right way to teach, to test, or to select and motivate and cull teachers, is the key to setting this situation right. As for vocational education and apprenticeships, the on-going, multi-party failure in that area could lead one to believe that our Oxbridge-educated leaders can’t bring themselves to really care about something so far from their collective experience: true, perhaps, but like the anxiety about primary and secondary education it misses the point.

The lack of a risk insurance system 

The real problem, which no party in recent decades has even tried to face up to, is that investment in skills is risky. Britain does not have a good system for insuring against this risk. At the root of the skills crisis are the benefit system for those who lose their jobs; and the financing of further and higher education, especially for mature students.

Learning a skill is an investment, and a choice: it takes time that could have been used earning money, or in learning something different. A sensible young person, offered the opportunity to train in some specialist area, might frame the risk like this: “if this skill becomes obsolete when I am forty-five, or if the jobs in this industry get off-shored, who will support me and pay for retraining so that I can get another good job? Will I lose my house?” In many countries on the Continent – Denmark and the Netherlands are actually better examples of this than Germany – the answer is that the social welfare system and the education system will work together to see that you have a new opportunity, and that you don’t have to go through a personal financial crisis before you get to your new career.

The benefits debate

Britain’s ongoing domestic quarrel over the benefit system focuses on people who use it for the long term: are they scroungers, or do they deserve our compassion and support? Lost in this debate is the fact that the system, while too generous to some long-term claimants, is too mean with people who need serious midlife re-training in order to again be productive members of the workforce. The UK benefit system is unusual in allowing so many people to stay on benefits for so long. But for a benefit system to move people on to good jobs, it needs to provide for adequate training and education; and, if we want young people to take risks when they select their educational paths, the jobless benefit needs also to provide income insurance which is adequate to make that the investment in skill attractive despite the risk: during the re-training period it needs to be generous, and proportional (up to some cap) to the individual’s prior income.

The differences between Britain and the rest of Europe

Britain’s benefit system does not do that, and for that reason it leads people here to make different choices about what skills to obtain than do people of Germany, Scandinavia, Switzerland, and the Low Countries – the high-skill manufacturing and exporting engines of Europe. The skills employees have then affect such things as the investments companies make in innovation, a question Andrea Filippetti and I address in a study available here.

This difference between Britain and its continental neighbors is long standing: with respect both to welfare systems and skills, it has roots going back at least to the 1920s. In recent decades, however, the riskiness of investment in skill has been greatly amplified by the globalizing knowledge economy. More rapid technological change is making skills obsolete more quickly. Rapid technological change and shorter product life cycles have also increased the volatility in company financial results, and in the size of the typical company’s workforce; this undermines not only “jobs-for-life”, but also employers’ willingness to share the workers’ risk by providing training, and re-training, internally. Offshoring (made feasible by the combination of modern communications and transportation technologies, and trade liberalization) can shift whole industries from one country to another in very short periods, and that produces extreme uncertainty about the demand for the skills associated with those industries. The risk of offshoring can, in the absence of insurance, actually make offshoring inevitable: if risk depresses investment in skills an industry needs, this in itself can make the industry uncompetitive, and offshoring proceeds apace. As if all that were not enough, climate change is now making its own contribution to the volatility of demand for skill, a contribution which will grow as the needs of adaptation and mitigation will compel rapid change in the technologies we build, install, and use. As long as Britain’s social insurance system cannot compensate for the increased riskiness of investment in skill, the skills of Britain’s workforce can be expected to deteriorate in relative terms.

Skills investment from pre-school to university

Skills that are risky investments are found not only in vocational and technical training, but among university subjects. Wang et al find that students view STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) in that way. In response, students flood degrees in Business and Management – they are not Mickey Mouse, they are Low Risk. They are, for those who can’t go to Oxford, the modern and democratic equivalent of PPE or Classics, qualifying one to work in any industry, in a wide range of roles, up to a point. Often we pretend that this is a virtue, labeling low-risk skills as “transferable”. We do all need some transferable skills, but in education, as in entrepreneurship or in battle, some things can only be accomplished by taking risks.

Risk aversion shapes not only the choice of subjects to study, but also the way in which particular subjects are learned and taught. British employers complain that they can’t find skilled computer programmers, despite years of policy directed at improved IT training at all levels (and I do mean all: six years ago, when my son started nursery at the age of eleven months, that little institution was scrambling to deal with the one black mark in their Ofsted report – a lack of IT training. For better or worse, they fixed the problem.) Part of the problem, infamously, is that UK IT training has emphasized the use of shrink-wrapped software, the administration of Microsoft packages at the expense of the skills needed to program, and to customize collections of open-source software. This dismal offering is actually what many students want, because it economizes on investment in risky skills. In industries from banking to race cars to computer graphics, the skill shortage then shows.

Why don’t children in Britain learn enough math and science? It’s common to blame the schools, but however good the teaching a child could be expected not to concentrate on those subjects, if her literacy skills are sufficient to read the writing on the wall of the job market: knowledge of math and science may be transferable but, as we have just seen, many of the skill sets that benefit most from math and science are relatively risky investments. Universities teach a lot of overseas STEM students, in part because UK students don’t fill the places. Many of those foreign students stay on; through this avenue, and others, the UK relies on imported skills. The supply of imported skills, however, is insufficient to the task, and skills shortages remain.

All of these problems could be substantially alleviated by a generous, earnings-linked, time-limited jobless benefit, conditional on participation in an education or training program. But, even if we had that, who would pay for the training itself? Tuition fees and loans shift the risk inherent in educational choices from the state to the student, and that compounds all of the problems addressed here. The problem has been magnified by the Equivalent Learning Qualification (ELQ) rule, a foolish Treasury decision late in the last Labour government, which removed state funding (and subsidized loans) for students earning a qualification at or below a level they had already attained, with exceptions for certain subjects. There is now a good prospect that the ELQ rule will be reversed, which would be a small improvement, but still the fees remain.

One solution would be to include full fees for the duration of the approved programme, along with the jobless benefit: support the jobless as full time students. A drawback to that approach is that it punishes people who anticipate the need for re-tooling, rather than hanging on to a precarious job until they are sacked and thus eligible for benefit; it’s also not clear how it would apply to the self-employed, and if it can’t be it punishes entrepreneurship. The best way to avoid these perverse incentives would be simply to eliminate tuition fees or, short of that, to do so at least for students over some age threshold – 25, say.

Today’s educational choices are affected by expectations about what social insurance will give, and what tuition fees will take, at some unknown moment ten, twenty, or thirty years from today. The hard part of all this, for Britain, is that its majoritarian electoral system is given to extreme policy swings, making it hard to produce confidence in social policy decades hence. Short of a constitutional earthquake in favour of a more consensual system of government, it seems unlikely that the skills shortage can be solved unless there somehow emerges a cross-party understanding that a combination of good social insurance and affordable continuing education are needed if we want young people to take chances when investing in skills.

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